Often Muslim women are the subject of wardrobe inquisitions. From the lack of hair visible to the abundance of strands countable, women’s bodies are constantly a front for cultural warfare and communal obsession. Regardless of a community or society’s religious/ethnic/ethical background, a woman’s body is nothing short but a litmus test of how well a society’s morals are progressing and also the front for the exertion of control by men and the male gaze. There is truth to the social importance of women in a country’s development, particularly mothers. But the particular obsession that I’m discussing goes beyond any parcel of social good and socio-economic development. Instead, it is linked to unwavering beliefs about the nature and role of women in society in relation to their male counterparts.
But, I’m slightly done with that for now. Instead, recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the Muslim male appearance. Now, I’m not going to deconstruct the beard or the kufi or rolled up pants. Deconstruction is really not a huge interest of mine when it comes to how people engage with piety and their relationship with God. Instead what I am interested in, however and perhaps contradictorily, is how young Muslim men in North America have come to adopt the Arab dress* – particularly the thobe – as a ‘standard Muslim male dress.’
Just as there are requirements for Muslim women’s dress, there are also similar requirements for the dress of Muslim men. Modesty and humility, after all, are not gendered concepts in Islam. This is, of course, in terms of the Qur’an and the Ahadith which stress the importance of modesty and humility for both men and women. Clothing is just one aspect and while the majority of Islamic scholars agree that the ‘hijab’ is obligatory for Muslim women, it is also important to note that it is also obligatory for Muslim men to conduct themselves righteously before and in the presence of women by ‘lowering their gaze.’ To be slightly tangential, the focus on physical piety as illustrated by clothing has been heavily on Muslim women, even though Muslim men are also to wear loose clothing and ensuring that certain parts of their bodies are covered at all times (navel to the knee, goes the famous decree!). While this ‘complaint’ is oft-repeated, it continues to be a significant problem in the Muslim community in North America, in particular, where our obsession with our women’s bodies and hair blind us from seeing God’s other commands and recommendations. Essentially, we become selective in what we choose to promote and what we choose to practice.
When many young men do practice ‘lowering their gaze’ they seem to – not always of course and I never mean to generalize – associate it more so with a sort of ‘fitna’ nature of a woman or even the ‘fitna’ of catching a glimpse of her. Especially if she is a fellow Muslim. Additionally, lowering your gaze does not necessarily mean never looking up at the person in front of you – it can encompass many mannerisms and epistemtic processes. In other words, don’t objectify women, respect them, don’t feel any sort of entitlement to them. My body is not your oyster.
To go back on track: men have requirements in their manner and their clothing, all of which relates to the taming of the Self, the Ego in face of the Power and Greatness of God. The general thinking goes that to submit your heart to God, you must clear it of all arrogance – including all of its various manifestations that may exist.
In the years that I started paying attention to the Muslim community and in the years that the younger Muslim communities have begun interacting with their religion in a way unprecedented by their parents’ generation, I’ve noticed a startling and concerning framing of Islam in North America: it is heavily Arabized. Fatemeh Fakhraie of MuslimahMediaWatch.org (i.e. my editor) wrote a piece in AltMuslim awhile back discussing the narrow and ethno-specific framing of Islam in North America:
Looking within our own community, many Muslims themselves (those of both Middle Eastern origin and non-Middle Easterners) see Arab culture as a proxy for Islamic authenticity. This may stem from the fact that the Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him)—who was an Arab—in Arabic. Naturally, there is value of learning classical Arabic and reading the Holy Qur’an in its original form. Knowing classical Arabic can also aid in reading the ahadith (a collection of the Prophet’s sayings, teachings, and traditions), and reading about Islamic law and history.
Baladas Ghosal of openDemocracy.com defines this phenomenon as “[a] process of homogenization and regimentation – the “Arabization” of Islam – puts greater emphasis on rituals and codes of conduct than on substance…” But although getting caught up in rules and regulations often can make one miss the bigger picture, it’s important to note that this Arabization is more of a cultural issue than a religious one.
Since the original Muslims were mostly Arab, everything associated with them – their culture, names, and family structures – has been associated with Islam. But this presents a problem since the vast majority of Muslims in our current world are not Arab. Passing off Arab culture as Islam in this regard is inaccurate, exclusionary, and disrespectful of other Muslims’ cultures.
Fakhraie continues to discuss the issue of converts, in particular, who often will cling to a strongly Arabized identity. Although South Asianized convert identity is incredibly prevalent as well. She also brings up issues of clothing, however my discussion is slightly different than her’s.
I don’t have a problem with associating certain names, languages or clothing as “Islamic” or “Muslim” despite knowing the problems that come with such categorizations. Nevertheless, I do have a problem when this categorization becomes exclusive to particular cultures thereby diminishing the vastness of the diversity of cultures that are either heavily or partially informed by Islam and either in historical or religious terms. My name is Sana and it is considered to be a Muslim name not only because of its presence in the Qur’an but also because of the geographic origin of the name. Muhammad, the most powerful name a Muslim could have as an identity marker, was not necessarily an “Islamic” name prior to the birth of the Prophet, but came to have the significance and religious weight that it does because of historical connotations. Kanwal, my mother’s name, is Punjabi and not technically “Islamic” but its history in Muslim lands and appropriation has rendered it otherwise. Hence, Christopher or Krishna or Shlomo are awkward names for many if not most Muslims because they are historically and religious entrenched in other traditions with particular meanings. Again, I don’t have issue with this unless people make this a point of piety warfare or some thing to that extent. So, no problem with these categorizations.
There is, however, something unsettling when one culture – a minority culture in the scheme of things – dominates not the cultural aspect of faith but also how we as both individuals and communities engage with it. Thobes have become synonymous with Muslim male clothing which is “a-cultural.” While some non-South Asians may wear shalwar kameez as a means of engaging with physical piety and modesty, there is something still ‘foreign’ about that fashion of clothing which has been near-well erased from the the adornment of the thobe in many North American Muslim communities – often in major urban centers and suburbs, but not always.
And forget a boubou, a male West African dress that I doubt will be as common and mainstream as the thobe has become across many communities.
The issue this then brings up is the extent to which even our engagement with Islam on a personal and communal level is informed by particular cultures. It is impossible to separate religion from culture and culture from religion, especially when the two are so wholly dependent on each other – particularly culture from religion more so than vice versa. But then, what about the hijab? The niqab? The abaya even? In recent years with my immersion into the Montreal Muslim community, particularly the Arab parts of it,
I’ve come to see how essentialist the approach to South Asian Islam has been. In other words, a woman who chooses to cover her head with a dupatta as well as her chest, with hair showing is considered immodest. And while many will say there are requirements of what the hijab itself should entail and what it covers – it makes me wonder whether strands of hair are really a test of modesty or is …modesty a test of modesty?
Why can’t the shalwar kameez be a normal so-called Muslim dress for men and women where anyone can adopt these clothes, if they so wish to, without it being seen as inherently a “cultural” dress? The boubou? The kanga? The kimono? The sarong? Turkish pants? Why is it that when I go check out Shukr clothing, their fashion looks like a weird mixture of Arab-Desi geometric cuts sprinkled with some “Western” variations? Why not the amazing other fashion styles, cuts and designs from other cultures? Why not working with the fashion ‘indigenous’ to our locale to make it modesty friendly?
The de-culturalizing of the thobe and abaya is not the main problem. Their dominance in fashion and physical piety engagement is, because it essentially creates and perpetuates a dangerous cultural hierarchy of what is “right” in Islam and, well, what is Islam.
*Also wanted to note and this is my own shortcoming that I missed to point out in this rushed blog post: when I said Arab, I should have clarified that this is a very Gulf/Levant inspired fashion. The Arab world is vast and diverse and while there are similarities in clothing, the “thobe” is not universal across the so-called Arab world. That’s really a subject for another blog post …that I will write in a year.